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Germany

East Germany’s Former First Lady Turns 80

Margot Honecker, the reclusive widow of former East German head-of-state Erich Honecker, was known for her authoritarian style and rigid socialist ideology. DW-WORLD.DE looks back at her life as she turns 80 on Tuesday.

Margot Honecker is still an unrepentant socialist

Margot Honecker dressed elegantly and had a nice figure. Yet she was more than just a trophy wife for the president. Driven by her own ambitions and political convictions, she continually sought out positions of influence and eventually served as minister of education in communist East Germany for over a quarter of a century.

An unwavering believer in communism, Margot Honecker used her role as minister to indoctrinate the next generation. Politicized education was a method of gaining support for the repressive communist regime of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), which was then a part of the Soviet bloc.

“She saw the school system as an extension of the dictatorship and many people were hurt professionally and mentally,” said Hubertus Knabe, expert on former East Germany and director of the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, which is located in what used to be a prison for political dissidents in the GDR.

“She was a bit fanatical, while Erich was more bureaucratic,” added Knabe about the unpopular minister.

Hanging on to an impossible dream

Margot and Erich Honecker at a socialist youth festival in 1973

Over 17 years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Margot Honecker is still an unrepentant socialist.

“No one can seriously expect me to sacrifice my world view and my convictions on the altar of contemporary history,” she said at a presentation of her book “Margot Honecker on the Other Germany,” which she published in 2001 together with prominent Chilean socialist politician Luis Corvalan.

The book originally appeared in Chile, where Margot Honecker has lived in exile since 1992. It was a rare exception to her usual silence: After years in the political limelight, the 80-year-old now avoids public interviews and appearances.

Climbing the political ladder

Born on April 17, 1927 in the eastern German city of Halle, Margot Feist was a young woman when World War Two ended and the Soviet Union gained control of eastern Germany. Trained as a clerk and a telephone operator, she soon became involved in the Free German Youth (FDJ), a socialist organization for young people. Showing a penchant for leadership, she swiftly climbed its ranks.

In 1949, at the age of 22, she became the youngest member of East Germany’s parliament, the Volkskammer.

Margot had met her future husband at FDJ meetings. Erich Honecker was the director of the youth organization; he was also 15 years older and married. When Margot became pregnant and gave birth to their daughter Sonja in 1952, Erich divorced his wife and he and Margot married.

Erich Honecker was released from charges of treason due to ill health

In his book “Margot Honecker. The Biography,” literary scholar Ed Stuhler speculated that the Honeckers may have married for political reasons. Indeed, Margot did not lack professional and political ambition.

In communist East Germany, mothers were expected to work -- the state provided childcare -- and Margot Honecker followed the party line. In 1955 she began working at the Ministry of Education, rising to the top position there in 1963.

“Trained for war”

In East Germany and throughout the former Soviet Union, political education and propaganda were crucial to securing public support for the regime and school curriculum was saturated with socialist doctrine.

In 1978, military training was introduced in the ninth and tenth grades.

“The children and youth in the GDR were trained for war,” said Hubertus Knabe, “both theoretically with textbooks and practically with weapons exercises and military manoeuvres -- and that at an age where they were still very impressionable.”

“It was a politically charged war against the class enemy, against the West,” added Knabe.

On the run

A marriage of love or politics -- or both?

After the Fall of the Berlin Wall , Erich Honecker resigned as head of state in 1989. In March 1991, the Honeckers fled to Moscow to evade charges in the Federal Republic of Germany for Cold War crimes involving the shooting deaths of East Germans attempting to flee to the West.

The following year, Margot immigrated to Chile where daughter Sonja was living with her Chilean husband. Chile had strong ties to communist East Germany after the GDR took in thousands of Chilean refugees in the mid-1970s following a bloody military coup led by Augusto Pinochet.

The post-Soviet Russian government had extradited Erich Honecker to Germany to stand trial, but he was released by German authorities in 1993 due to poor health. He joined his wife and daughter in Chile, where he died of cancer in May 1994.

Questioning justice

Margot was more staunchly dogmatic than her husband, said GDR expert Hubertus Knabe

In his new book “The Culprits are Among Us,” which came out in Germany several weeks ago, Knabe argues that none of the GDR’s political leaders were punished. Both Margot and Erich Honecker are prominent examples, he said.

After German reunification, Margot Honecker was investigated for her role in cases of forced adoption involving the children of dissidents who’d been arrested or had fled to the West. Charges were dropped in 1994, however, and the former minister never stood trial.

Knabe said he finds it particularly unfair that the German state pays out 4.1 billion euros ($5.5 billion) in pensions for the former leaders of the GDR, but only 48 million euros for the victims’ pensions.

Margot Honecker reportedly picks up a pension check for 1,500 euros each month at the German embassy in Santiago.

DW.DE